Egyptian Coffins Successfully Detected and Recovered by Customs in Texas - Question of Proper Seizure Authority Remains - Updated August 10, 2012

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency today announced the seizure of "two priceless Egyptian sarcophagi-type artifacts."  A CBP officer at the World Trade Bridge on the border with Mexico in Laredo, Texas is credited with the discovery that successfully recovered the pharaonic-era coffins.

No arrests were made and the transporter(s) has not been identified.  Meanwhile, the suggested legal authority given by CBP for seizing the coffins appears questionable even though there are legal arguments available that would support the seizure of the artifacts.

The coffins did not have export permits from Egypt.  "Working in coordination with HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] and with Office of Assistant Chief Counsel, CBP on July 9 determined that the artifacts would be seized due to a lack of export documentation to substantiate legal exportation of the artifacts from Egypt," CBP says in a press statement.

But the United States is unable to enforce a foreign nation's export laws.  CBP incorrectly explains in its press release that "[t]hrough the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, the United States entered into a cultural property agreement with the Egyptian government to help protect archaeological and ethnological materials through import controls."  The United States and Egypt, however, do not have a bilateral agreement or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) pursuant to the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA).

[Sidebar: The CPIA is the federal law that implements in the U.S. the 1970 UNESCO Convention (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property).  It permits the U.S. to enact import protections and seize endangered cultural objects coming from nations which have a bilateral agreement with America.]

Last year, CBP authorities in Chicago misapplied the law in a case where officers seized a Nayarit figurine from Mexico.  The seizure was reportedly made on the basis of a violation of the CPIA because it was presumed that the United States and Mexico had a bilateral agreement in force under the CPIA.  But the U.S. and Mexico did not (and still do not) have such an agreement in place

Federal officials potentially could rely on the CPIA to seize the Egyptian coffins if they were stolen from a museum after January 12, 1983 and the artifacts were inventoried.  But CBP does not report that the coffins were unlawfully taken from a cultural institution in Egypt.

Federal authorities may choose to rely on alternative legal arguments, nevertheless, to seize, forfeit, and return the coffins to Egypt.  These legal theories are outlined in a 2011 blog post entitled Reclaiming Trafficked Egyptian Cultural Objects.

Instead of returning the coffins right away, the authorities could also choose to secure the coffins as evidence while they investigate and potentially indict suspects for possible violations of the law

CBP tells how the customs officer in Laredo "selected a shipment manifested as Egyptian sculptures for an enforcement examination. In the course of their examination, CBP officers discovered that the shipment included possible Egyptian antiquities . . . ."  CBP reports that it "had recently been made aware of possible stolen artifacts of Egyptian origin,"  It is unknown if the information the agency received was generic--such as the ICOM Red List--or whether CBP received specific intelligence about the shipment traveling through Texas.  In either case, the customs official at the border remained alert so as to intercept the cultural items.

CBP is to be commended for its detection and interdiction of the contraband Egyptian coffins.  Yet it is important that the agency accurately cite the proper legal authority for the seizure of the artifacts.  That is because the public relies on government officials for guidance so as to remain compliant with the law and to avoid the potential loss of property.

[UPDATE August 10, 2012: CBP has now revised its web-posted press release by striking any reference to the seizure of the Egyptian coffins under the authority of the federal Cultural Property Implementation Act. The agency finds support for the seizure by stating that neither sarcophagus had any accompanying export paperwork from Egypt.

CBP should clarify that it is not the lack of foreign regulatory paperwork that justifies the seizure of the cultural objects--although the lack of an export permit from Egypt can be an important piece of evidence to federal enforcement authorities--it is that American import and criminal laws are triggered by Egypt's legal ownership claims to the coffins.  The sarcophagi, for example, can be seized under 19 USC 1595a's "contrary to law" provision where there is probable cause to believe that the coffins constitute stolen property in the United States under the McClain/Schultz doctrine's interpretation of the National Stolen Property Act. To simplify, stolen property brought into the United States from abroad is contraband under federal law that may be seized by CBP officers and returned to the legal owner.]

CBP's press release may be found here.  Photos of the seized Egyptian coffins courtesy of CBP.

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Text copyrighted 2012 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. CONTACT: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com